Ahmadinejad at Columbia: A Libertarian Student’s Perspective
by A.C. Bowen
by A.C. Bowen
By 3:30 pm,
the only traces of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s address at Columbia University
were the blowing mounds of flyers denouncing human rights abuses
in Iran and a lone speaker on the podium in front of Low Library
preaching the rhetoric of censorship to the by then largely dispersed
of the President of Iran had been hanging over the city for a week,
and nowhere was his presence more keenly felt than at Columbia.
Late the previous week, posters had appeared on campus with gruesome
pictures of Iranian public executions. Columbia’s Jewish student
group, Hillel, used various Ahmadinejad quotes – most of which were
taken out of context – on posters and flyers advertising an outdoor
rally against the visit and, more specifically, against the Ahmadinejad’s
public Holocaust denial and desire to destroy Israel. The Daily
News published a scathing
editorial denouncing John Coatsworth, Acting
Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), one
of the men responsible for inviting Ahmadinejad to Columbia.
debate was about everything except the real issue: the run-up to
an overt (instead of merely covert) war between the US and Iran.
The fact is that the majority of Columbia students seemed to know
nothing about Ahmadinejad and less than nothing about the country
he leads. I overheard two students speaking on the subway on Sunday
evening. One asked the other what they were supposed to be protesting.
The other replied "Oh, just the human rights stuff. Nobody
knows anything about his foreign policy." These were SIPA students:
graduate students in international affairs who knew nothing about
Iran’s foreign policy. Somehow I couldn’t quite convince myself
that all the lead dust in the air at the 96th street
station had caused a temporary memory lapse.
be the loudest opening shot yet in this round of our run-up to war
with Iran was fired by Lee Bollinger, President of the university,
in his introductory
remarks. "PresBo" – as the students
warmly call him – pulled no punches. The remarks were a mixture
of hypocrisy and provocation. Early on, he equated Columbia with
Israel and asked Ahmadinejad, "Do you plan on wiping us off
the map too?" However the "money statement," as the
student newspaper the Columbia Spectator called
it, was this: "Let’s, then, be clear
at the beginning, Mr. President. You exhibit all the signs of a
petty and cruel dictator."
in this statement is that Bollinger denounced Ahmadinejad for actions
similar to those that President Bush has undertaken: the
arrest and imprisonment of people for no good reason,
of freedom of the press, and the perennially
punishment. Obviously, PresBo is not a big
fan of the US cleaning its own house before it presumes to dictate
to a sovereign nation. Maybe it’s easier to face the dictator "over
there" than the dictator right here. After all, considering
the CIA’s toppling of Iranian President Mossadeq in 1953,
history is on Bollinger’s side. It’s a shame, though, that a noted
First Amendment scholar like Bollinger – who teaches Columbia’s
premier seminar on freedom of speech and the press – couldn’t refrain
from expressing his hope that Ahmadinejad would soon be ousted and
called him an enemy and evil while delivering a long discourse on
the glories of free speech. The students went wild with rapturous
applause at each denunciation, and the room resembled a WWF smackdown
until Bollinger left the podium.
the lambasting, Ahmadinejad kept his cool. He did not, as Bollinger
had hoped, "exhibit [a] fanatical mindset" or otherwise
make a fool of himself – at least until the question and answer
session at the end. His first order of business was to deliver a
short excerpt from the Koran and give Bollinger a well-deserved
piece of his mind. "When we in Iran invite someone to be a
speaker, we respect the students and professors enough to allow
them to make their own judgment and do not think it is necessary
to come in before the speech is even given and make a series of
claims and provide inoculation to the students and professors,"
he said to applause louder than any that Bollinger had received.
Lest that applause give anyone an impression that free speech by
politically inconvenient individuals is actually tolerated at Columbia,
some of his later innocuous comments garnered a disproportionate
number of boos and catcalls. Columbians are nothing if not fickle.
After a long
tangent on the divine nature of science and reality (par for the
course with any professor), Ahmadinejad hit back against the United
States and its rulers. "Did those who in the course of human
history wage wars not understand that lives, properties, dignity,
territories, and the rights of all human beings should be respected,
or did they understand it but not abide by it?...They in fact wish
to justify their own wrongdoings, though. By creating nonexistent
enemies, for example, and an insecure atmosphere, they try to control
all in the name of combating insecurity and terrorism. They even
violate individual and social freedoms in their own nations under
that pretext. They do not respect the privacy of their own people.
They tap telephone calls and try to control their people. They create
an insecure psychological atmosphere in order to justify their war-mongering
acts in different parts of the world."
might want to hire Ahmadinejad’s speechwriter, whoever he is. Couldn’t
have said it better myself.
outside the auditorium, protesters were cordoned off in "free-speech
zones," which looked more like corrals
enclosed by police barricades. The protesters – being of all ideological
stripes, from Orthodox Jews to anti-war protesters – fought at least
as much with each other as against Ahmadinejad. Especially unpopular
with the Hillel protesters was a sign held by members of the anti-war
coalition that stated that Iran has the highest Jewish population
in the Middle East and that Jews have representation in parliament
and are allowed to worship freely. The feminists were united in
dislike of the sign mentioning that 60% of Iran’s college students
are female and – unlike in our beloved ally Saudi Arabia – women
are allowed to drive and otherwise move about without a male family
member as chaperone. There’s no pleasing some people.
it was time for the question and answer session. He did very well
considering that he was set up to fail by Messrs Bollinger and Coatsworth,
who asked only the most inflammatory questions. Did Mr. Ahmadinejad
believe that Israel should continue as a Jewish state? The president,
not mentioning Israel by name, said that the Palestinian (used here
as an inclusive term meaning all religious groups living in the
area of Palestine) people should hold a referendum and decide that
for themselves. Why does Mr. Ahmadinejad believe that more research
needs to be done into the Holocaust when everyone agrees that it
happened? Because, said he, it is ludicrous to think that we can
debate 800-year-old proven mathematical principles, but we cannot
do any research or hold any debate about an event which happened
a little more than 60 years ago, even if that debate would broaden
our understanding by allowing new perspectives a chance to develop.
Why does Iran deny basic human rights to its women? It doesn’t,
said Mr. Ahmadinejad, who pointed out that women hold top positions
in government, there are celebrated female scientists and academics,
and women are allowed education and freedom of movement unheard-of
elsewhere in the Middle East.
where the conversation broke down. Coatsworth asked Ahmadinejad
why homosexuals were persecuted and killed in Iran. Ahmadinejad
stated quite clearly that there are no homosexuals in Iran, and
he has no idea where anyone could have gotten that fallacious notion.
This is where he lost all of his previous cachet with the audience.
His statement was met with extreme derision and the booing and catcalls
went on for quite some time. He looked slightly nonplussed.
president regained his stride, however, when asked why he was seeking
weapons-grade enriched uranium. He stated that even the IAEA reports
showed that his country was doing no such thing, that Iran’s nuclear
program conformed to international law, and furthermore, that Iran
was submitting to monitoring by international agencies. But, he
said, some nations have a monopoly on science and technology and
wish to use that monopoly to prevent other countries from taking
their rightful place in the world. Iran is a peaceful nation, he
continued, and believes that nuclear weapons are an abomination
which no country should possess and Iran would not seek.
This statement was met by loud cheers from the students. The speech
ended and Ahmadinejad was given a mixture of applause and boos by
the students for his troubles.
end, Ahmadinejad’s address at Columbia University devolved into
the sorry spectacle of President Bollinger making an utter fool
of himself and his university on national television. The Iranian
president came out looking much better than the university president.
But both of them (and we) would have been better off had they (and
Geraldo) stayed at home.
[send her mail] is second-year
student at Columbia University.
© 2007 LewRockwell.com